‘Get your hands dirty, that is where you find diamonds’ – Swaady Martin-Leke

Updated on 25 June 2014

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'Get your hands dirty, that is where you find diamonds' - Swaady Martin-Leke


Company Profile
Name of company: YSWARA
Years in existence: 2 years
Position: Founder and CEO

Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional?

After a successful 10-year career at General Electric Co. (GE), I decided to follow my passion for African culture and heritage and build Africa’s number-one homegrown global luxury brand. At GE, I held leadership positions in several divisions across the world with my most recent posting as the Director for Sub-Saharan Africa of GE Transportation (revenues: $300 million) and acting CEO for GE South Africa Technologies.

I was selected as “New Leader of the Future” by the Forum of Crans Montana in 2011. In 2012, I was hand-picked to be part of the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship  Programme and named one of the “Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes. I hold a Masters in Economic Sciences from the University of Lausanne and an MBA from the London School of Economics (LSE), NYU Stern Business School and HEC Paris Business School.

Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do?

I chose to focus on the luxury industry because it essentially conveys a continent’s culture and identity. I believe that with Africa’s thousands of years of history and know-how, we can do more than produce “crafts” and “ethnic” goods. YSWARA’s mission is to promote and preserve Africa’s rich culture and history through exceptional products made with African natural resources by African Artisans.

Our mission is to promote and preserve Africa’s rich culture and history through exceptional products made with our natural resources by African artisans. We support the export of value-added African products and work to foster a dialogue between tradition and modernity, combining traditional techniques with contemporary designs and acting as an ambassador for the preservation of Africa’s artistry and expression.

“Building a ‘made in Africa’ luxury brand is not for the faint-hearted”

How many people does your company employ?

We have 6 people full-time and 6 freelancers. We also use an extensive network of suppliers to make our YSWARA products, most of them located in Africa.

What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa?

Building a ‘made in Africa’ luxury brand is not for the faint-hearted. It is extremely difficult at every step of the supply and value chains. At the beginning of the chain, the main challenge is that our African industrial fabric is not made for high-quality goods produced at a competitive cost relative to China or India.

We struggled to find suppliers who source and manufacture their products in Africa. Then, when world-class quality is met, the consistency is not guaranteed. As a luxury brand, we cannot compromise on quality and consistency, so this is our number one priority.

Then, once you have overcome all the challenges along the value chain and your product is now ready for export, you find out that the shipping costs out of Africa can be up to 10 times more expensive than similar distances in other parts of the world. This makes the export of African-made products out of Africa not competitive and closes the doors of e-commerce. This is a huge missed opportunity for African economies and entrepreneurs. We are basically sidelined from the growing global e-commerce opportunities because of the cost of exports.

How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?

Despite a very strong track record in the corporate world, when I left GE and took an 18-month sabbatical and worked on the YSWARA project. Wherever and whenever I would present my project, most people did not take me and the project seriously. YSWARA was viewed as a hobby or a side project, rather than an ambitious impactful business project. This perception by society had and has a strong impact on the ability to get support and raise financing as a woman entrepreneur.

This challenge and the lack of potential investors’ confidence leads to the second most acute challenge which is limited access to finance. This is an Africa-wide issue with the lack of seed financing and angel networks but it’s even more challenging for women. I was lucky enough to have a bit of savings and the support of family and friends who believed in my project and invested in YSWARA. But this was just enough to move the business off the ground. Now that we have demonstrated that there is a global market for our product and we have created a unique concept, we are raising money to scale the business and finance our ambitious expansion plan.

What are the three things you attribute your business success to?

I am always very honest about my journey, the successes and the failures and as such. I don’t feel any pressure to succeed as long as I continue to be honest along this journey. I always give the best of myself, operate with unyielding integrity and try to balance priorities at all times. There are great days and there are bad days. In the end, what matters most is to build something bigger than myself, my team and which will have a positive impact on my continent.

When did you know that you were an entrepreneur?

I spent eleven years of my career with GE, during which time I was involved in many different divisions of the company across the world. I have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand, GE’s global footprint, having worked in various roles (e.g., finance, strategy, sales) and businesses (e.g., GE Capital, GE Corporate, GE Infrastructure) across 5 regions (Europe, USA, Caribbean, Middle-East, Africa) and having been a part of global task forces.

Although I was surrounded by sceptics (who thought I had gone crazy to leave a successful corporate career), it was not difficult to leave my job as it was a natural evolution of my career and personal aspiration. After helping grow and run a bit of someone else’s company, you start to feel the urge to build your own and run it fully. Although I had always been a corporate entrepreneur inside of GE, I appreciated the fact that setting up a company from scratch with limited means would be a completely different ballgame.

With the global nature of the EMBA program, the networks I built and the hands-on (entrepreneurial) experience I got in Nigeria, I acquired some of the missing entrepreneurial skills necessary to build a successful venture and honed the YSWARA’s business concept. I took the time to properly do my homework, held focus groups, travelled to do competitive research, met with potential suppliers and eventually built a very strong business plan for YSWARA.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am a tough leader which comes from a decade of leadership training at Jack Welch’s leadership school, GE. I ask a lot of my team, make them work very hard and push them constantly but at the same time, I am always there for them. They know they can come to me for anything professional or personal happening in their lives and I am always there to listen and support them.

I truly love all my team members and always wish the best for them in their lives. I want them to be happy when they come to work as this is where they spend most of their time. Working very hard and being stretched doesn’t have to mean being miserable at work. I believe in being fulfilled by work and that is what I try to give to my team. What gives me the most pride is to see my team members succeed and to be able to create a life and career beyond what they think they could achieve. I love to empower and grow. I set them up for success, providing them with the tools and resources to succeed.

What are some of your favourite motivational books and motivational gurus that have inspired you to grow your business?

I am not a big reader of motivational books and don’t follow any motivational guru. The only book I refer to from time to time is Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership by Laurie Beth Jones.

What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?

My advice is to find your passion and pursue it passionately. A name is built through integrity, perseverance, confidence and a lot of hard work, not glitz and glamour. Get your hands dirty, that is where you find the diamonds. Just remember that your networks are key to business survival – you can’t do it alone.

What’s the worst and best business advice you’ve ever received?

Best advice ex-GE leader, Art Harper, gave me early in my career: “Do what you are passionate about … this is the only way you will be successful”.

And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both?

I believe in hard work and God.

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